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Caregivers and Professionals Need Advice to Encourage Natural Language Development

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Caregivers and professionals need to understand the fundamental way in which infants, toddlers and older toddlers engage in language and develop competence. Caregivers must provide routine care as well as observing play and facilitating psychological language development. Susan's advice is easy to follow:

  • Caregivers must develop a close mutually trusting relationship with each of our infants, toddlers, and two-year-olds – including returning their coos and chirps, babble and jargon, and early efforts to use words (usually nouns and verbs because they’re more concrete than words like “is” and “the,” as is the thinking of our very youngest);
  • Caregivers must support a baby’s emerging sense of self to observe each baby and respond promptly to its expressed (or mysterious) needs in an effort to enable the child to feel personally effective and respected; to look directly into the yes of a toddler when she speaks to us; and to answer helpfully and courteously,
  • Caregivers must effectively encourage language including singin, dancing and play in order to enrich toddlers in their efforts to make sense of their world and feel "intellectual."
  • Susan says be clever and help toddlers in their efforts to talk by naming, explaining, commenting all activities during the day. For example,  “Let’s go for a walk,” and he runs and climbs in the stroller. For example, "Run and jump." For example, "Yes, we're going in the stroller."
  • Susan says be clever and help toddlers explain name and comment on their activities.


The bottom line regarding language is this: A child would not need – so probably would not be genetically psychobiologically programmed to learn – language if she did not live in an interpersonal context – if human beings were not social creatures and did not live in groups. This fact offers us parents and other caregivers a ready-made opportunity to help children learn language as we interact with them, play with them, and show interest in what they’re doing, asking logical open-ended questions to stimulate in them thoughts of more things they’d like to say. Young children are tremendously motivated to learn language by their emotional need to be part of the human family.

The growth of language competence in very young children is entirely entangled with the growth of their emotional competence (maturity, ego development) and the growth of their interpersonal competence. If as caregivers we observe carefully, respond warmly and reliably, encourage autonomy, encourage self-discipline, enrich the environment (including with lots of listening and talking to), encourage competencies of all developmentally appropriate kinds, and encourage self-pride, most children’s language will progress well. For most children, language just happens. For some children it comes early and very expertly in part because they are taken seriously, listened to, and conversed with frequently throughout the day.

When the youngest infants study our faces, listen intently and watch our every move, they’re learning language (listening skills) how to coordinate the sounds they hear with the mouth, facial expressions, and body language that go with the sounds, familiarity with the rhythms, cadences, and syntax (grammar) of the language spoken by their families. Of these aspects of language acquisition, Jerome Bruner says, “syntax is, perhaps, the most mysterious for…it constitutes a highly intricate and inter-dependent set of rules in every language.” When a baby smiles or looks interested, distressed, startled, surprised, enraged, pleased, disgusted, displeased, afraid, sad, avoiding, wary, joyous, petulant, anticipating, bored, coy, anxious or confident, he is communicating. When a baby, toddler, or two-year-old accepts the invitation we give by holding something out to him, and extends his arm to reach for it, and grasps it – or offers us something – he’s engaging in reciprocal communication, the back and forth give and take that are the foundational pattern of conversation – human dialogue; he is learning language. When senior babies, toddlers and two’s point at something they want or want us to notice, they’re  “talking” – learning language.

We model language by saying the same things over and over and over, and naming the same objects, as we go through our routines with children. We’re modeling the grammar of our culture or subculture (for example Chinese or BEV – Black English Vernacular), as well as vocabulary. Most people who live and work with young children spontaneously simplify their language, stripping it of confusing and cluttering extras, and coming straight to the point.

We refine the child’s pronunciation by accepting the language she gives us (not correcting her), and then pronouncing the word correctly as we repeat her communication  back to her by way of communication: “Yes Sal can have some milk.” Sal had asked for “Mim.” Language learning is interactive – it takes at least two people for progress to occur – one to try it, the other to respond to it (reinforce it) and refine it so it becomes possible for folks other than the tuned in mother or father to understand it.

We expand the child’s shorthand communications toward sentences in the same manner; the caregiver repeats almost what Sam said: Mom plays back, “Sam says, ‘I wanna see doggy.’” Sam had said, “I wanna doggy,” but had intended to communicate that he wanted to see the dog standing just outside the gate of the caregiver’s home.

We negotiate each communication with the toddler. Jerome Bruner points out that mothers, fathers, and other caregivers…often do not know what their children have in mind when they vocalize or gesture, nor are they sure their own speech has been understood by their children. But they are prepared to negotiate in the tacit belief that something comprehensible can be established.

Usually language comes easily and naturally to young children, it just happens because the ability to learn it is rooted in each infant’s biological makeup, as is the ability to learn a wide variety of other mental competencies (thinking skills, comprehension.)

Conversing with very young children is something of a joint problem-solving process. Communication always occurs in a context – the child is eating, trying to open something, looking at something, feeling tired, feeling constrained – so a combination of using context clues and trial and error usually solves the problem. As in any learning, a child progresses faster if challenged at the frontier of what she already knows and knows how to do than if merely left to mature. This is why educators at every level offer learning experiences and opportunities, and do not simply provide food and water and wait till children mature into adults. Caregivers can watch for language delays and collaborate with parents as needed.

Can language acquisition research and theory help caregivers?

Reading and taking courses in any and all segregated subjects pertaining to child development deepens our understanding and enjoyment of our work, so it’s probably a plus that you took the language course. Language experts have been disputing for two centuries exactly how humans acquire language. They believe that knowing the origins of language acquisition is of paramount importance. Undoubtedly it is to academics who devote whole careers to this specialty. However, our “career” is developing children, and the only things we really have to know about language acquisition are:

  1. How to “say” what little children are seeing, doing, and needing and encouraging them to do the same.
  2. How to listen attentively and respond appropriately,
  3. How to notice when language isn’t coming along within a normal range, and
  4. How to work with colleagues, parents, and specialists (if needed) to help children with language delays or special problems.

Researchers and theoreticians who have specialized in language acquisition have agreed for many decades that human babies are born with an innate ability to learn language – whatever language is spoken around them. Piaget pointed out that although the human species’ intellect is psychobiologically programmed to mature through stages of thinking (from concrete to symbolic), it’s activated and challenged by running into challenging experiences at the frontiers of its capacity that cause it to react by assimilating thinking and behavior to it. In exactly the same way, researchers and theoreticians (Bruner, for example) tell us. The human species’ language learning capability matures through stages of readiness but is activated and challenged by running into experiences that challenge it to understand or to use more language.

To a degree, being aware of the major findings of research and theory in all special aspects of child development can help caregivers. As caregivers, we have to blend splintered knowledge together and balance it, because our expertise is in helping whole children develop in all dimensions, with emphasis on the development of high self-esteem, sensible self-discipline, and good, strong character (ego).

This is why we encourage parents and other caregivers to chat with children. In many mundane ways during our days with little children we support and encourage their language development – or neglect to.

Ask Dr. Susan